Plastic Green Economy Part II: Upcycling is the new Recycling
Malina Gallmeyer, Helene Thibieroz, We Grow Green Tech
While recycling is a very popular and well-known approach to the plastic and waste problem in the world, upcycling is more of a hidden gem with great potential. This is the second article in a series regarding solutions to the massive plastic problem, and it will focus on upcycling and several of its aspects. Upcycling is a practice that takes waste, mainly plastics and glasses, and transforms it into something of greater value. This can be done around the house as some people use empty jars for candles or storage, but it is also becoming more common to see upcycling in industry. Upcycling offers unique benefits and more people need to discover and utilize it. Statistics show that only 21% of Americans upcycle goods within their house, but this number needs to increase dramatically in order to truly achieve the benefits of upcycling. Although upcycling is similar to recycling in that it only delays the passing of plastics and waste to a landfill, it still stands above recycling as it increases the value of waste as opposed to devaluing it. Environmentally, socially and economically, upcycling can have major impacts and lead to positive revolutions.
For the planet, upcycling holds a slew of benefits. Upcycling decreases the amount of new material that needs to be produced, which, in turn, protects resources, such as fossil fuels, air, and water. Every year people consume more than 100 million tons of plastic, and that plastic generates between 100 million tons and 500 million tons of carbon dioxide during its production . Decreasing the amount of virgin plastic used and increasing the use of upcycled plastic, could lessen the amount of carbon dioxide that infects the air each year. Upcycling can be applied to most kinds of waste, so the benefits can be far reaching and ever-expanding. For example, reusing one ton of discarded textiles in cloth production can prevent 20 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere . Upcycling can limit the amount of plastic produced and, with decreased production, the amount of plastic that enters the ocean would decrease, as well as, potentially saving marine and human life.
Upcycling also produces social benefits as people learn to make new and valuable products from old ‘useless’ items. Many local artisans work with old martials to create new art or new useful products. Upcycling gives them the opportunity to spend little on materials and gain a fair amount of profit, which supports local economies and communities. Additionally, upcycling cultivates creativity within communities. Crafting new and meaningful items from discarded items takes a great deal of creativity and focus, which has seemingly decreased in past years . A study from University of Texas McCombs School of Business proves that the presence of a smartphone, on or off, was enough to decrease cognitive ability of people . With activities like upcycling, people have the chance to escape the virtually focused world and create something with their own hands in an effort to eliminate waste.
Economically, many opportunities lie within upcycling. Not only does upcycling support small businesses, it also has potential within the larger production industry. The biggest benefit of upcycling within industry is the reduction of manufacturing costs . Since the material is generally considered ‘waste,’ it is much cheaper than virgin materials, allowing for decreased costs and increased profits. It is estimated that in the European Union the net-material cost savings could add up to as much as $630 billion. The economic growth associated with upcycling would also increase employment throughout the world . Upcycling is one of the first steps toward a circular economy, which, if implemented, can not only help the planet but regain $4.5 trillion wasted in the current linear economy . Another benefit associated with a circular economy and upcycling is a greater security of supply. If producers use upcycled material instead of virgin materials, they can experience both consistent component pricing and a safer, more stable source of materials .
This new process is far reaching and is allowing for innovation in many different fields. The first example is the clothing industry. Upcycling clothing increases in popularity every day, but reusing cloth, like the majority of businesses do, is not the only way to use the process. The company Recover Brands takes plastic water bottles and transformers them into shirts, other apparel and accessories. Not only is this saving the environment from excess plastic bottles, it helps many consumers engage in the cause to create a better world as their products are very affordable . Aside from the clothing industry, upcycling is expanding into several aspects of everyday life, for instance transportation. ReCycle Bikes is changing the way bikes are produced by using 80% recycled aluminum to make the base of their bikes and the seats are made from renewable cork. Their goal for the future is to have a frame made from 100% recycled aluminum [10,11].
Upcycling also is making a large impact within the furniture sector. The outdoor furniture start-up, Yardbird, is forging ahead in the sustainable world with furniture made from recycled ocean plastic. Their products are made from 50% recycled plastic collected from beaches in the Philippines, and, at the end of the wicker furniture’s life, it is able to be recycled again. Not only does the company care about working towards a circular economy, they also care about air quality as they paired with Carbon Fund to offset 100% of their carbon footprint . Altrock is an other startup within this space. They make custom furniture, predominantly a variety of tables, from 87% recycled and reclaimed byproducts from the natural stone industries . While eliminating waste, these companies manage to create beautiful, valuable and functional products.
The number of businesses in this space expands everyday, and pushes the economy in the right direction. It is ultimately in our hands to seek upcycling businesses, both locally and within the global economy, to steer the world towards a sustainable future backed by a circular economy.
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